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Turkish Coffee Is Steeped in Tradition — And Easy to Make

Turkish coffee
Turkish coffee is made in a special pot called a cezve, also known as an ibrik, with extremely finely ground coffee powder. Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

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She knew this could make or break her engagement to be married. Swirling in the small copper pot on the stove, the dark, powder-like grounds would need to produce the perfect brew, an art that's been passed down for centuries. As she stood waiting with anxious confidence, the water began to rise and the requisite layer of foam appeared, signaling it was time to act.

Quickly pouring the thick elixir into the tiny porcelain cup that would carry her fate, she felt her heart racing in anticipation of their reaction — her potential husband-to-be and his parents were seated outside, waiting to taste her Turkish coffee. Her suitor's willingness to drink his with salt instead of the customary infusion of sugar would prove his worthiness, and his mother's favorable opinion would help seal the pending union.

Steeped in Tradition

The oldest method of preparing a cup of joe, Turkish coffee doesn't just fuel a unique marital tradition, it embodies a deep cultural history — uniting people through conversation, painting fortunes in leftover grounds, educating the illiterate, causing sultans to hire spies and even energizing men as they whirled in search of religious ecstasy.

The strong flavor and velvety feel distinguish it from the filtered coffee most of us wake up to — or even the double shot we grab from our modern-day coffee empire. By boiling a mix of water, coffee that's been ground so fine it could pass as cocoa powder and a bit of sugar, you get an unfiltered brew that brings clarity to the famous Turkish proverb: "Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love."

Coffee as a Cultural Connector

Melis Aydogan, a first generation Turkish-American and founder of Rüya, a pop-up Turkish coffeehouse in Cincinnati, Ohio, says the essence of Turkish coffee is connection. For more than 500 years, the historic brewing method has paved the way for people of all ages and backgrounds to unite through conversation. "Coffeehouses are truly a welcoming space for our culture," says Aydogan.

One beloved ritual — fortune telling — brings a little mystery to the table. After tipping your leftover, sludge-like grounds onto the saucer, a friend, family member or even professional can read your fortune from the resulting shape. Aydogan shares that her mother and grandmother read the family's fortunes after meals, and "people use the custom to reflect on what they want resolved and what they're looking forward to. The whole idea is to come together and connect. Fortune telling is just the vehicle," she says.

This meaningful foundation of friendship and hospitality, coupled with the brew's uniquely layered history, has even earned it a spot on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage List. That's no small feat for 2 ounces (59 mililiters) of liquid.

The History of Turkish Coffee

One of most powerful dynasties in the world, the Ottoman Empire ruled huge areas of the Middle East, Eastern Europe and northern Africa from the 14th to the early 20th century. And its denizens played an equally large role in the culture — and popularity — of coffee drinking.

When coffee first arrived in Yemen in the early 15th century, whirling dervishes, practitioners of a mystical sect of Islam, began drinking the boiled beans to fuel their meditative, whirling dances.

But the real boom began when two traders brought the coffee to Istanbul in 1555. The Ottoman sultans fell head over heels in love and employed their own royal coffee makers. Public coffeehouses sprung up all around, creating what would become pivotal cultural spaces for men to socialize, share news and stories with the less educated, and discuss politics.

By the mid-17th century, sultans got suspicious, sending in spies to monitor conversations. Luckily, the sultans' attempts to close the coffeehouses failed. Today they continue to form a vital part of the cultural fabric. But of course, families brew it at home too.

How to Brew Coffee Like a Turk

It's more accessible than you might think. Aydogan encourages us to "breathe easy — you don't have to be a coffee nerd to get it right. It's an art, not a science."

The only must-have: Very finely ground coffee.

A highly-recommended tool: A cezve, also known as an ibrik — a specially shaped, tiny pot with a long handle. If you don't have one, you can still get your brew on; just use the smallest pot you've got.

  • Add cold water to your ibrik, leaving a bit of room at the top
  • Thoroughly mix in 2 teaspoons of super-fine coffee grounds
  • Mix in the sugar; Turks never add it after brewing
  • Put your ibrik on medium heat and let it boil up and rise. No need to sir. Just one boil is recommended, allowing the crucial foam (crema) to reach the top. Because as the Turks say, "Sleep cannot be without blanket, coffee without foam."
  • Pour the coffee into a small espresso-like cup, letting the grounds settle

Turkish Sand Coffee

Making Turkish sand coffee is very similar to making regular Turkish coffee. The only real difference is that Turkish sand coffee involves using a large cooking vessel filled with sand that is heated on a stove or over an open flame to a very high temperature. This method is said to impart an evenness in the cooking and a more consistent taste. The deeper the cezve goes into the sand, the hotter it gets — and the coffee is considered to have been baked, not boiled.

However you drink your Turkish coffee, take care not to drink the grounds — and not just because they're tough to swallow. They can grant you a glimpse into your future, or at least bring you closer to your fellow coffee drinkers. After all, it doesn't matter where you call home, Turkish coffee is connecting people cup by cup, conversation by conversation.

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